Imran Khan’s Citizenship Offer to Afghan Refugees: A Promise or a Topic for Debate?

On September 17, in an apparent major policy shift, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan promised citizenship to 1.5 million Afghan refugees. In the same speech, he also stated he will provide passports to the parents of the children born in Pakistan.

This policy decision, however, is not exclusively for Afghans as Khan has also stated he will grant citizenship for the approximately 250,000 Bengalis as well.

The decision received mixed reactions as it went viral.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) provincial minister Saeed Ghani lashed back and stated that “illegal immigrants,” referring to the refugees, should only be given work permits, and insisted that they should be registered.

In reaction, Khan reiterated his support for granting citizenship in parliament but agreed to conduct a consultation prior to finalizing a decision. As the backlash gained more momentum, Khan took a step back early Tuesday and said his statements were no more than to initiate a “debate” and no decisions had been made.

Afghan Refugees and Pakistan’s International Obligations

Afghan refugees first entered Pakistan in 1979, with the communist invasion of Afghanistan — throughout the past 30 years there have been numerous regime changes and indiscriminate violence that has left many people displaced. International organizations have stated there are a total of 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and an additional 600,000 to 1 million unregistered. It is estimated that 60 percent of these individuals have been born in Pakistan and therefore will be able to request Pakistani citizenship.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 has recognized the right of a person to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Pakistan has been able to intellectually argue that it’s not required to treat Afghans they are hosting according to the same standards as is guided in international law, due to not being a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol.

Since July 2016, according to Human Rights Watch, over 600,000 Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan, 365,000 of which were registered, were forced to return back to Afghanistan. This was the world’s largest mass forced return of refugees in recent years. The coercion was done through removing their legal status, threatening deportation in the winter, and police abuses that include extortion, arbitrary detention, and nocturnal police raids. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, police announced that they arrested 2,000 “illegal settlers.” Furthermore, police abuses were so brutal that Afghans had to restrict their movements — negatively impacting their access to education and employment. The forced return campaign launched in 2017 has seen three extensions and is seen as largely unsuccessful.

The non-refoulment principle in international law forbids any country with asylum seekers to return them back to a country in which they are likely to face a danger of persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” — including forcefully sending refugees back into war zones. Moreover, this principle of customary international law applies to all states even if they are not parties to the conventions on the Status of Refugees.

Therefore, the Pakistani government not only has a legal obligation in accordance with international law but it is in the national interest of the state to develop policy that will incorporate the refugees through a naturalization process to be granted citizenship.

Pakistan’s Motives  

Shrinking donor assistance, domestic constraints, the radicalization in the camps, and refugee fatigue has made the refugee issue a major concern for Pakistan. The Pakistani government, by providing citizenship to these individuals, will be providing them basic rights granted to all citizens but will also be able to hold individuals accountable and incorporate them into the economy.

Therefore, by accepting Afghans that were born in Pakistan as citizens under Section 4 of the Pakistan Citizenship act, 1951 and Section 3 of the Naturalization Act, 1924, the government will both adhere to the international principles and administer policy that will serve its own national interests.

Khan very eloquently emphasized the urgency of addressing one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises when he stated “I will keep asking what will happen to these human beings… if we don’t decide on their rights now, when will we decide?”



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